By Cathy Reisenwitz
I recently told two men that I wasn’t going to make plans with them in the near future. They’re great people, I’m just focusing my time on others right now. In both instances, I told them exactly what I was doing and why. Why didn’t I just ghost, or slow fade? Because I’ve learned that if you want to stay on good terms with people, given the choice between under-communicating and over-communicated, choose the latter.
Working with the brain usually yields higher returns than working against it. The human brain is designed to do two things: filter out irrelevant information and interpret ambiguous behavior as social exclusion.
You know those people who talk a lot and say nothing? Fuuuuuuck those people. When someone continues to explain something to me I understand as if I don’t after I say, “I understand,” it gives me both the motivation and the time to imagine all the various implements I could use to stab them in the eyeball.
It took me a long time to figure out that not everyone feels stabby when someone gives someone information they already have. That’s because, unlike many people, when people over-explain, I feel condescended to. It feels to me like they’re saying, “I think you’re too stupid to get this in fewer words.” And I hate being condescended to because I’m insecure about my intelligence.
Also, while I’ve mostly abandoned the concept of culpability, I still hold boring another person as one of the worst sins imaginable. And I’m self-aware enough to know that my utter inability to remember any details means I’m not a particularly good storyteller. Social anxiety keeps me from thinking well on my feet. So to avoid that horrible feeling I get when watching someone lose interest as I talk, but have too much grace to interrupt me, I tend toward brevity.
In addition, concision is a sign of intelligence and a show of respect. And there’s nothing I want more than to prove how smart I am while making someone else feel good about themselves.
But there’s a difference between concise and cryptic. In my perfect world, people will ask questions when they don’t understand me. In the real world, people feel dumb when they don’t understand what’s being said, and *quelle horreur* bored. And, as it turns out, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like that.
Recently a guy I’m dating told me he prefers the PeaceRevolution Podcast to RadioLab. His reasoning took me aback. He loves the rambling of the former to the quick cuts and precision of the latter. What’s lost in the cuts, he said, is nuance.
When I began editing, it really hit home with me. It’s easier and more pleasant to filter out irrelevant information than it is to make things up. A 1,500-word piece that should be 500 words is easy to fix. A 500-word piece that needs to be 1,500 isn’t.
It’s not just easier to filter than to invent, it’s also far more pleasant.
Did you know that being ignored affects the brain in a similar way to physical pain? And that in the absence of information, people often jump to a worst-case-scenario conclusion?
I mean, hell, I do it. A guy doesn’t seem that into me? I have vastly overestimated my market value. I’m way less pretty, smart, funny than I think I am.
I once had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement with one of my partners. I had to stop it and switch to full-disclosure because I kept making up reasons to worry. In my head, the women he was dating were far younger, prettier, wilder, funnier, and more adventurous than me. The women of my nightmares were better than the women of his dreams.
Of course, if I’d been more emotionally mature, I would have realized that attention from higher-quality women is cause for celebration, not anxiety. Your dick brought a great woman into my orbit? Everybody wins! Love is like the market in many ways, including that neither are zero-sum. The value you bring to the table in no way diminishes the value I bring. Time is zero sum, so if we compete, it’s for that. And competition spurs improvement. That’s something I know intellectually, but find difficult to take solace in when I know the bitch is skinnier than me.
But, ya know, baby steps. And a helpful baby step for me was to hear the unvarnished truth about the woman who made me most nervous. Yep, she’s younger and skinnier than me, no escaping it. She connected with him around experiences that I neither have nor want. But she wasn’t the brilliant, hilarious, endlessly fun sex goddess I’d envisioned. The truth was way less scary than my fears. It generally is.
Everyone’s doing that. Or at least everyone but the most chill and mature. The rest of us anxious mofos are filling gaps in information with fears and anxieties. There’s actually a theory from neuropsychology for why this might be. There’s evidence for most of human history social exclusion has been deadly. So, the theory goes, our brains adapted a hyper-vigilance, seeing it even where it doesn’t exist.
When I look at my writing missteps, the times my writing was misunderstood and panties were twisted as a result, it’s always because I took really controversial and complex ideas and attempted to discuss them with insufficient nuance. As a result, hundreds of people filled in the blanks I left in my writing with worst-case assumptions. They assumed I was lying and that I was ill-intentioned. They assumed that where I did not carefully lay out my premises that they were faulty. They assumed that where I did not painstakingly explain my logic, that it was fallacious.
Not everyone did. Not everyone will. Some people see the best in people, assume the best, interpret most ambiguity as positive, and fill in the blanks with sunshine and light. These are our heroes. These are the people we should strive to emulate.
But, as they say, hope for the gurus, plan for the everyday assholes.
Besides the fear of boring people and looking stupid, another barrier to comprehensive communication is the fear of being challenged or misinterpreted. Sure, we call could be clearer communicators. Misunderstanding happens. But I think it more often results from the absence of information than an overabundance.
Here’s the crucial distinction. It’s on par with the realization that people who are better than me are better for me. And it’s equally difficult to fully internalize and implement.
Making sounds and words isn’t necessarily communicating. Where I’ve fucked up isn’t in over-communicating. It’s in typing and speaking words that don’t say anything. And that sucks, but it can be dealt with. People will filter out boring, unimportant information, because they’re born to do it.
Of course, people differ in the ease with which they filter out irrelevant information. Part of the reason I don’t watch broadcast news or non-narrative videos is that I can’t dip in and out to only hear the good stuff. I only listen to narrative or extremely concise podcasts. New research indicates that this deficiency unites me with creative geniuses and people with autism. Draw your own conclusions. Genius and autism are not, of course, mutually exclusive.
But, most people are better at that than me. And when I leave out information people deem important, they make it up themselves, and it isn’t pretty.
I’ve never fucked up by communicating too much. I’m beginning to think it’s impossible to do so. Every time I’ve fucked up it’s because I communicated too little. So my goal going forward is to communicate more, starting with this long, rambling, beast of a post. Now let me know in the comments, what did I leave out?
Images: Giphy (5); Anders Andermark/Flickr